Friday, January 23, 2015

Hello, my name is __________

Creating characters is one of my all-time favourite parts of writing. People are so very interesting - what they say, what they do when they say it, how their own personal brand of logic works and what, exactly, makes them tick. What better way to let your creative juices run free than to create a character, right? 

Okay, so maybe character creation (or characterisation) is not everybody's cup of tea. How we create the people who populate our imaginary worlds is as individual as a fingerprint - there's whorls and lines and patterns that we can recognise, but everybody has their own personal mix. It may even be different depending on the particular character him/herself. Some of my stories' protagonists simply appear in my head, much like an unwanted guest ringing the doorbell when you're just about to step into the shower. Others have to be coaxed out of hiding, an often painful and certainly frustrating process. Some characters make you wait until almost the entire story is done before they even let you know their name. 

The problem with characters is that they often fall flat when compared to reality. They lack depth, and as such, don't come across as sufficiently realistic to the reader. A book full of cardboard-cutout characters is not very likely to succeed, at least not on its own merits. There are some bestselling counterexamples, but let's not go there - to give a cliche saying it's place: if someone jumps off a bridge and makes the news because of it, does that mean jumping off a bridge is the only way to get your fifteen minutes of fame? 

I certainly hope not! 

When I write, I try to think of my characters as real people. Character interviews help me do this, and you wouldn't believe the surprising factoids that can turn up when you do that. The better you know your characters, and that means hero, villain and everyone in between, the better you'll be at judging their reactions in any given situation the plot might throw at them. I sometimes let my characters talk to each other on random topics to get a feel for how they should react to each other in the actual story. But my favourite way of getting to know them is to sit in front of the fire and let them talk to me... 

Tessa Conte sits in a comfy armchair before a happily dancing hearth-fire in a room full of books and leather. She has a yellow legal pad on her lap, and is busily chewing the end of her pencil. 

There's a knock at the door.

Come in, please.

A man enters the room, dressed in a desertman's garb, all loosely flowing robes and leather belts holding it all together. He's armed with at least two blades -  a sword on his back and a knife in his belt - that Tessa can see, but there's bound to be more. He comes to a stop before Tessa's chair. 

TC (waits a bit, tapping her pencil against the legal pad): 
Well? Are you going to sit down? (He sits and pulls off the black turban and veil) Thank you. So, what are we talking about today? How about we start with you introducing yourself to the audience?

R: I'm Rashid.

TC: That's it? Just Rashid?

R (he's studying the room, the fire, the books, anything but looking straight at Tessa): Yes. I'm the Peacemaker's guard.

TC (frowns): Care to elaborate on that? And why aren't you looking at me?

R (deliberately turns his head to look straight at a spot behind Tessa's right shoulder): I'm just a guard, I shouldn't be looking at you. (he jumps up starts pacing in front of the chair) I should not sit in your company, my lady.

TC (watches him for a bit): Are you looking for threats, Rashid? (he just nods) So you'd protect me, too, then?

R (clearly startled, he meets Tessa's gaze and she sees that his eyes are a strangely mezmerizing honey shade): Yes, my lady. Of course I would! That's my purpose, is it not?

TC: To protect?

R (frowns, then nods as if he needs to reassure himself of this): Yes. I protect, that's what I'm here for. There's nothing else for me, is there?

TC: You don't sound very certain of that.

R (looks into the fire; his hand is resting on the hilt of his dagger, clenching and unclenching): I don't know what to think. I have no memory older than the day I was given into the Peacemaker's service, you know that, don't you? How am I to know what or who I was before then? It should not matter. I know I can't be that anymore, that I'm not allowed to, but...

TC (leans forward): 

But there's something there, shadows, echoes of something...

TC (sits back in her chair): 
We'll figure it out, don't worry.  

This is an interview I did with the MC of one of my ongoing projects. Before I sat him down and wrote my way through this interview, I had no clue about the gap in his memories - adding that little tidbit helped clear up a major snafu in my plot line. It also helped me see how overly focused he was on protecting (the peacekeeper or anyone else, really). I still have to work on that, though the instinct to protect 'his people' is a big thing for Rashid, before and after the memory loss. 

So that's what I do to get to know my characters - we sit down, all civilised, and have a chat. Once I know them a little, I make lists. Lists of likes, dislikes, physical characteristics, childhood memories, allergies, thoughts and feelings and anything else I can think of. I write it down and add it to my story file, so it'll be there when I'm stuck on a particular scene or dialogue. Writing things down also helps keep the little facts consistent. When you're on your nth reread, some things may fail to register, may even slip past an editor, but you can bet on your readers noticing every little mistake, and at the very least it will stop the flow of their reading. 

It's vital to keep your characters in line, and if they do dance to their own tune, make sure the reader knows why. 

If you're a fellow writer, what do you do to keep things real with the people you put down on paper? Do you like talking to your characters, too?

As a reader, what is most important to you regarding literary characters? Are you a stickler for consistency or can you overlook some mistakes as long as the character feels real to you? 


  1. I'm a big believer in character worksheets. The one I use is fairly detailed and I'll generally write the first few chapters, then fill in the worksheet for all the main characters, then write the rest. I need to get to know them a little bit before I really dig in. I've also had each character write a page about what they really want.
    I love the discovery you shared in this post, though. I might have to try something like that!

  2. I use character worksheets, too. Nice, long, detailed. I have Merissa McCain to thank for introducing me to those, and she dragged me into using them kicking and screaming. Now I'm grateful. She's awesome like that.

    Anyway, I agree with you that writing unique, realistic characters is fun and well worth the work! Writing and actual interview with them would be loads of fun, too. I hadn't thought about doing that, and I might have to try it...

  3. I too am a character worksheet fan! I love your process though--it sounds much more fun than mine is. For whatever reason, if I don't know who my main characters are before I start getting into the story, my story just goes off the rails. Of course--sometimes it does that anyway... ;-)

  4. I use character worksheets sometimes. I write with Scrivener, and they have forms for characters that work for me (most of the time) - they let me make organised notes. I don't use them all the time, though. I prefer the free-flow characterisation of the character interviews or writing little scenes that happened in the character's past, things that make it clear to me what motivates him/her.

  5. No worksheets for me. Never saw much use for them. I just throw characters into the story and things happen.

  6. I'm a total pre-planner too! Character profiles, maps, the lot... Love this idea. I'm going to try it next time my characters get stuck.

  7. I did try a kind of improv role play once when a character was frustrating me. I already had character profiles sorted and I have the troublesome character profile to a friend to read and then took on another role myself and set the situation in which I was stuck. Then we just did a few minutes improv 'in character'. Didn't come up with any gems but it helped me get back on track either using stuff I liked or getting rid of stuff that I didn't.

    1. We should totally get together and do role plays!!!

  8. Holy cow, this post has completely revolutionized the way I do character development! Next writing session, I'm going to have a civilized chat w/ a character or two, over a cup of coffee (if that's their thing). :-)

    1. Well, you'll find out what they like to drink, won't you? ; P

  9. Yay for character development! It's so important for so many reasons.

  10. Clearly, I sort through too much detail in my head. I've never used worksheets, and like Linda Maye, just throw my characters into the deep and watch them swim. I always have ideas of who they are, but as I write and they react to and push the plot, I get to know them intimately. I've always wanted to try worksheets, course I've always wanted to try my hand at outlining too, but the pantser in me is having none of it. :D

  11. It is really cool how people 'meet' their characters in all different ways. Usually mine seek me out, or I run into them by people watching. I make a few notes about their details, then the characters tells me a story. Just how it happens most of the time for me. I still have write down a few things about them so I can refer back.

    Also, I sometimes have to change the names to match their character's personality. Sometimes a name may be too starchy for a laid back kind of person.

    Love this post! :)